Maighread's way


She doesn't realise it, of course, but there is an echo in her conversation. This is how Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill describes her famous aunt Neili, 14 years dead but recognised as one of the most important sources of Donegal traditional song: "She said, `Leave me a tape recorder and I'll do it myself. She knew she wasn't well. She was saying: `Take everything you can from me, because there's no-one behind me.' She was on a mission."

And this is how she describes the re-issuing, this year, of the one album she made as Skara Brae, with her brother, Micheal, her sister, Triona, and Daithi Sproule, in 1971: "It was made in an afternoon, with a microphone hanging out of the ceiling. I was 15, Triona was 17 and Micheal was 19 or 20. They were the first traditional songs done to guitars - it was the first time the pop music thing was brought to the Irish language. It would be lovely if people knew where it all started. I pressurised Gael Linn to reissue the album. I was on a mission." Tonight, the three O Domhnaill siblings will take the stage of the Whitla Hall for the Belfast Festival to revisit the sound created on that lone Gael Linn CD. Daithi Sproule, who plays with Altan, has decided to let sleeping CDs lie, but like Triona and Miche al he has recently returned from the US to live in Ireland. This return gives the story a pleasing circularity.

The O Domhnaills were a large part of the energy which threw the clay of traditional music onto a wheel and coaxed it into the shape it is in today. Jim McCloskey of the University of Santa Cruz writes in his sleeve notes for the re-issued album, Skara Brae, how the music formed over summers back in Rannafast, Co Donegal, where the O Domhnaills' roots were, but from where they had been banished by the scheme to transplant native Irish speakers to the rich pastures of Meath.

Here, they would meet the annual influx of Irish-college students, such as Sproule, from Derry, as well as full-time Donegal dwellers such as Ciaran and Pol Brennan of the Clannad family. "Somewhere," McCloskey writes, "there is a tape of Feidlimidh in the Sky with Diamonds, an interweaving of Baidin Fheidhlimidh and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, sung by many voices on a sunny afternoon in a classroom of the Irish college - emblematic of the influences which were shaping the direction of musical growth."

The year after Skara Brae was released, the band members went their separate ways: Michael worked with Mick Hanley on the Celtic Folkweave album, Triona recorded a solo album with Gael Linn, and then they both joined, with Tommy Peoples and Donal Lunny, what is still (though it is 20 years dead) the most influential band in Irish traditional music, The Bothy Band. And Maighread went to Dublin to study nursing: "I was that bit younger and I had this very strong sense that you have to achieve something in a career first." She never did midwifery, however, because she went on a roistering tour of the US, to celebrate the US Bicentennial, with a group including Junior Crehan, Micho Russell, De Dannan, and others, numbering 26 in all.

Only nine came home, and these included Maighread. She had good reason: "I met Cathal (Goan, now director of TnaG), in Rannafast when I was 16 or 17 - I kept ringing him from the States and saying: `I'm staying another few days'. But I came home to get married. "He was fascinated with my father. I think in some ways I was quite jealous of my father (Hiudai), when he'd be up discussing songs with him at night. Cathal's big love was the music, the songs. My father died four months to the day of our wedding, which was tragic, but in some ways Cathal took up where my father left off. I'll always ask his advice on a song.

"He found Roise na nAmhran's stuff (the songs of an Arranmore singer who died in the 1960s) at the time I was pregnant, which was why I called my first child Roise. Prionnsias O Conluain had recorded them in the 1940s and 1950s for RTE. And he had so much time for Neili and all her stuff." Goan, a Belfastman fascinated (like so many others at the time) by the culture of the Donegal Gaeltacht, had found a wife with a heaven-sent voice and several direct lines to the song tradition: "When I went to see Dancing at Lughnasa, it reminded me so much of Neili," says Maighread. "The knitting. She had gone blind in her youth and she'd feel the size of you and feel the wool to knit for you. We all remember . . . the clock ticking and the knitting needles going. "The songs seemed to come through the women in our family. The women at home together - the instruments were to do with the men and being out. If she heard a song twice, she'd have it. The child ballads, the night visit songs - although her English wasn't great. And stories. She couldn't read, but she had this great retention of words. If there was anybody different in the town, they'd be invited in for an oiche airneail."

The Bothy Band - "fiery, brilliant and self-destructive", as Jim McCloskey calls it - finally burned in its own flames in 1979, ensuring it a kind of Jeff Buckley status in traditional music, and scattering its members far and wide. Both Triona and Micheal went to the US, and eventually joined forces again in the fusion bands, Relativity and Night Noise. "The New Age thing" is how Ni Dhomhnaill describes the niche into which Irish-influenced music falls in the US, if you are to make a living, and she is scathing about so-called "Celtic music": "Hot tub music, I call it - I just don't see the point." While her siblings traversed the US continent, Maighread was looking after her two children in Dublin, and working part-time on nights as a theatre nurse in Mount Carmel hospital in Dublin: "I loved theatre," she says, with passion.

She doesn't for a moment regret she has turned fully professional as a singer so relatively late: "The most important thing for me still is to marry it with my private life. To be able to pick and choose. I was there when my children came in from school with their little stories." She is suddenly worried that she is sounding sanctimonious: "It's you yourself who miss out. Children are resilient." Meanwhile, behind the kitchen units, her astonishing voice was maturing and Cathal was feeding it with songs. "Gael Linn kept at me to make an album. Eventually, I rang up Donal Lunny and asked him would he be interested in producing it. Half an hour later he was on his bike outside my door. On his bike. I always remember that." They released Gan Dha Phingin Spre (Without Two Pence of a Dowry), an album of songs, in 1991. The title comes from the opening verse of An Clar Bog Deal (The Soft Deal Board), surely one of the most passionate and beautiful love songs in any language: "Phosfainn thu gan bo gan puntai gan dha phingin spre/Leagfainn fum thu maidin druchta le banu an lae/ Mo ghalar dunta gan me agus tu, a ghra mo chleibh/ I gCaiseal Dubh is gan de leaba fuinn ach an clar bog deal."

It can't be translated, of course, but Cathal Goan makes this attempt: "I would marry you without a cow, without pounds, without tuppence dowry/I would lay you beneath me on a dewy morning at the dawn of day/It is my complete affliction that you, my darling love, and I are not at Caiseal Dubh with nothing for a bed beneath us but a soft deal board." What she calls the "biggie" on the album is Amhran Pheadar Breathnach - always referred to as Amhran Pheter Walsh after the popular songsmith from Glenfin, Donegal, who lived around the middle of the last century. This, his best-known song, is not hot on story-line - it's about a young man on the run, who meets a young woman and downs an epic number of pints.

Maighread got the words from her aunt Neili and Cathal discovered a new air to it. What happened then was that it was reimagined in the sweeps of Donal Lunny's bouzouki and went out to dance on the Middle Eastern edges of Irish music. Jim McCloskey calls the album "the high point of Irish recorded music in the 1990s", and since its appearance few have disputed his claim that Maighread is "the foremost traditional singer of her generation". After lying dormant for a couple of years, the album took off, was licensed by JVC in Japan, and has been "licensed out of existence" in the US.

Her collaborations with Lunny have continued: she features on his recent Coolfin album, and has been touring with the Coolfin band: "I love getting out there," she says, "and it's an opportunity to do songs as I did them on the album. But on the album, there was no percussion. Coolfin's is a loud sound." Maighread is determined (in the way only a woman who says, "life begins at 40, you can actually stand up and be yourself" can be determined) not to shift anchor from the seabed of her music. "I feel the next step for me is Triona and I. She's come back from the US after 17 years - all that time, we could have been together." Donal Lunny will produce this album, and a large, mainstream company is expressing keen interest.

There will be a Breton song on the album, collected from Sarah Gaudec, and Mary Smith from Lewis will teach them a Scots Gaelic song; Inis Dhun Ramha will be there and An Chrubach will feature. Written by an ancestor of the sisters, it is about a cow who jumps off Tory Island in desperation and swims away - "I heard recently they were getting a bull in Tipperary to take to Tory. I wonder will it die of loneliness, there's only one cow on Tory," comments Maighread, like a true Donegal mainlander.

"Cathal keeps saying to me, there are so many songs, don't ever feel you'll run out. He can transcribe the words of toothless old grannies. It's the only relaxation he gets, recently." Now, Maighread, who was the nurse and the mother while Triona was the voice of the Bothy Band, sings the melodies and Triona the harmonies. Is there rivalry between them? "Actually, there isn't. There are songs like A Stor, a stor, a ghra, where she has always taken the lead, but she would never attempt An Clar Bog Deal. I have the more powerful voice, but I can't play like her. She can read music and went up to grade eight in piano."

A cause for regret is "she missed my children being born. But she was going through a period of her life when she was doing her thing." She adds: "She used to fight my battles for me - now I fight them for her."

When the O Domhnaill siblings take the stage tonight, the sense of history revisited will raise the hair on the back of the neck of anyone who loves Irish music. For Maighread, it will be final proof that staying mulishly at home, in Ireland, singing her songs as she has always sung them, has not meant she has squandered her gift of a voice: "I am one of the few people left who can say the song tradition was handed down to me. The most important thing is never to lose sight of what you're good at. No-one else does what I do."

Maighread, Triona and Micheal O Domhnaill play tonight with Liam O'Flynn at the Whitla Hall, Belfast at 7.30 p.m.